Melanie Coleman had no retail background when she opened TallulahBelle’s in 2011, but, as an accountant, she did have nearly two decades of financial expertise in the corporate world. She’d also put many years into building inventory for her own little shop of sorts, a “gift closet” in her home in Kansas City, teeming with items she’d purchased at art fairs and craft shops across the country and stashed away to give to friends and family.
Coleman decided to turn her avocation into a vocation when she was between corporate jobs (or so she thought). She had considered opening a craft store later in life, but a helpful nudge from Aubrey, her then-teenage daughter, propelled her to act sooner. “I thought I’d do it as a second chapter, after I officially retired,” Coleman recalls. “My daughter basically said, ‘Why wait?’ and I didn’t have a good answer.” (Coleman returned the favor when she opened the shop, naming it after a term of endearment she used when her daughter was a baby.)
Coleman, 53, credits the annual Plaza Art Fair in Kansas City with igniting her love of craft. A visit to the Sausalito Art Festival set it ablaze, and she started visiting fairs wherever she could.
“I still remember the first piece I bought – a silver necklace by Jennifer Chin out of Boston. Now I own four or five pieces of hers. I was also introduced to [jewelry makers] Melissa Finelli in Boston and Lisa Crowder in Austin. Those are the three artists who really got me interested. And every time I’d travel for work, I’d seek out shops like the one I have now.”
Along the way, she collected information on makers, which eventually proved crucial in stocking her store. She emailed and called artists, asking if she could sell their work. These days, Coleman also goes to a couple of wholesale shows every year but still scouts new artists online and whenever she travels.
The shop, in a western suburb of Kansas City, leans heavily toward jewelry, one of her personal loves, and handbags, her other favorite accessory. “I think the uniqueness of the jewelry I carry is what makes it do so well in this area,” she says. “There’s a huge variety, but there’s got to be something edgy about the piece. It might be the color, the shape, the material, the size. There’s got to be something, whether you like it or not, that makes you pause.”
TallulahBelle’s also carries ceramics, glass, and wearables. What many of her goods have in common is a personal touch. “It’s a blessing and a curse,” she says with a laugh, “but I truly do labor over what I want. Of course, every piece isn’t customized, but I might say I want this color and that stone and this mixed-metal finish. I never say, ‘Send me a pick box.’ ” (Artisans send pick boxes to retailers with an assortment of items for them to choose from.) She also notes that 90 percent of her artists are women, and she donates a portion of each sale to a nonprofit that supports women.
Coleman first opened her shop in suburban Leawood, Kansas, but in early 2017 she moved to downtown Overland Park, a more urban area with an eclectic mix of locally owned stores with younger appeal. “I like to say that my first store was like a first marriage – all white, beautiful flowers, amazing photography. The first store felt like what I wanted in my minds’ eye to bring to Kansas City – something cutting-edge and contemporary.”
But while her offerings haven’t changed, she says that her current space better reflects her personality – open, accessible, with contemporary art and craft in a historic building, just like her own century-old home in Kansas City. “I also wanted my second space to be more reflective of our city: warm and inviting,” she says.
Even though craft is now her full-time job, the business hasn’t lost any of its original appeal. “To me, artists are the most authentic people on the planet. They’re doing what they love and excel at. I love sharing their art with customers, who really have become friends now. We’ve really built a community.”